(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)
COSTS INCREASING: Various factors have impacted the Libraries of Stevens County budget through the years…
Recently, the Libraries of Stevens County had to cut back hours due to the constraints of their budget.
Some people have asked how the library district found themselves in this predicament. The story is something that is familiar with rising costs through the years eating away at the budget from a variety of angles. The kicker, however, is that the library district can only raise its budget one percent from each previous year.
When the library district in Stevens County was formed in 1996, funds were earned by property taxes equaling out to 50 cents per $1,000 dollars assessed in the county.
While property values have increased in the county, since the library district can only raise their budget by one percent, they’re not able to stay at that 50 cent per $1,000 level. It has since dropped to 36 cents per $1,000 dollars assessed.
The one percent rule was established from a Tim Eyman initiative that was passed in the early 2000s.
With last year’s property taxes equaling out to $1,482,064 gathered, they are only able to increase the budget by $15,000. This doesn’t keep pace with a variety of cost of living expenses, unexpected expenses among other things.
A lot has changed in the library world that requires more money since the library district’s founding. Plenty. Despite the perception that libraries are somehow used less in the digital age, usage and checkouts have skyrocketed for the Libraries of Stevens County. Currently about 1,200 people walk through the doors of a public library on Stevens County on most days.
In 2019, 353,168 books or items were checked out or downloaded, and 1,800 new library cards were issued.
“I think you’d be hard pressed to find another public service or business that serves this many people in one day in the county,” LOSC Library Director Amanda Six said.
Libraries, along with having a physical selection of books, are now home to various programs, classes and serve as an access point to high-speed internet. With broadband lagging in rural areas, but the modern world requiring more things to be done online, people now line up to use the computers in the library because it is their only way to access the internet.
And strangely enough, the digital age is also hurting libraries in the pocketbook. While one would assume the digital download checkouts that the libraries offer would be cheaper since no physical copy is needed, it’s actually more expensive for a library to purchase the digital copy. Why? Publishers want to make sure they get their money out of their product, so libraries have to rebuy a book digitally after a certain number of checkouts or years. Along with this, digital downloads through the library system have skyrocketed from 23,376 downloads in Stevens County in 2016 to 51,802 in 2019.
“Before you’d buy five copies of a book for around 100 bucks, now with the audiobooks and the digital downloads, you’re looking at us spending $700 total for different forms of the book,” Six said.
Supplies, including books, make up $236,000 of the library system budget.
STAFF OF THE LIBRARY SYSTEM
Then there is the staffing, whose costs make up 73 percent of the budget ($735,290). This means that when there are budgets to be cut, there is not a lot of fat to be slimmed down and the staff of 16.4 FTE’s (full time equivalents) can be affected.
“We’re not just a warehouse of books, but we have a highly trained staff, some with masters degrees that do a lot of different things each day,” Six said. “Nobody gets into libraries to make money either. We have to keep our wages competitive for our size to attract people to work here, but we’re still on the low end when you look at the whole state.”
In the past several years, the libraries have had to cut hours system-wide by nearly 100 hours per month. This recent cut was to save 30 staff hours and only ended up cutting about four hours from the time of libraries being open. Staff has borne the brunt of budget cuts, with staff raises and cost of living increases being frozen. This most recent hour cut also dropped one part-time position, allowing the library system to give those employees a needed raise instead of bearing yet another financial hit.
“The staff is our most important asset,” Six said.
Library staff are highly trained professionals with high level skills in technology, literacy, programming and education development, and research. This means not everybody can do their job.
Since most staff members live within the areas they serve, they can identify some of the needs that each location’s community needs. This is different that some more urban library districts, Chewelah Library Manager Bryan Tidwell said.
“We live here so we’re able to narrow down and identify the needs of our community,” Tidwell said.
Much bigger library organizations, LOSC Board Member Rick Moore said, may have difficuluty pinpointing what the best services are. Sometimes services are hoisted onto the library system without additional funding. Government agencies and officials can tell people to go to libraries to fill out tax returns or to use the internet for some government function, meaning libraries serve well beyond their intended capacity.
The Libraries of Stevens County now have to staff eight different sites. Both Colville and Kettle Falls have contracted their city libraries to be ran by the library district, while Chewelah was annexed into the system in 2014. To the board members, they feel that as a geographically large area, Stevens County needs to be served by different access points.
“For some people that’s their only access to internet,” Moore said.
They have also partnered with schools and sometimes deliver books to rural schools in Stevens County so kids can check books out and take advantage of programs while not being geographically close to a location. But again, Libraries of Stevens County are victims of their own success. Constantly used as an example of how to run a rural library district in the state, with more people coming through the door, and more services being required of them, that means it takes a strain on the budget.
“For a business, if you have more people come through your door, you have more money,” Moore said. “For us, the more people coming in put a bigger strain on our budget.”
One solution is raising the levy cap back to 50 percent, but the last three measures on the ballot have failed. The last being around 2014 when the Chewelah Library was annexed. It’s not cheap to run a ballot measure; and for the Libraries of Stevens County to run a ballot measure they have to spend thousands of dollars.
“It can be up to $30K, it’s a large piece of our budget, “ Rick said.
So how does the library district affect the average Stevens County resident. The median price of property of Stevens County is $210K. With their current levy rate of .368, a family in a home of $210K pay roughly $77 per year for the library or $6.41 a month.
“So if your kid comes home from the library with a big stack of books, that’s basically your money coming back to you right there. It’s cheaper than Netflix,” Six said.
The per capita funding for the libraries in Stevens County is $39 per resident, based upon a county-wide population of 44,700.. There is no direct funding for public libraries from the state or federal government. There are grants that you can take advantage of, but these are for specific uses and not for operation, maintenance or staffing.
Ninety-nine percent of the revenue from the library comes from inside Stevens County and it gets put right back into it. While other taxes may go to the state or federal budget, this is not the case with the library levy.
The library system also tackles issues in the county such as preschoolers not being ready for K-12 education. Stevens County libraries are focusing on classes and early literacy programs to get kids reading at an early age.
“I see these taxes as an investment in your community,” Moore said. “Through metrics we’ve found that for every $1 spent by the library, there is a $4 return to the community.”
But a levy cap increase would be just one part of the puzzle. Library volunteers and groups like the Colville Improvement Club save the library system nearly $20,000 a year. There have been many efforts to streamline and consolidate the library system. Your selection is no longer limited to the library in your town and technology has made the libraries more efficient. They have also partnered with other agencies like the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Rural Resources, WSU Extension and TEDD along with area schools to be more efficient with services. Donations, grants and the Friends of the Stevens County Libraries have raised thousands of dollars for the library system.
The Libraries of Stevens County have been creative with how they have streamlined their services, but are increasingly being asked to do more. The board of directors talked about how several government organizations tell people “to do it at the library” which results in an increase in workload but no increase in budget. The digital age has also brought new challenges, but statistics show that more than ever, people are using libraries and are relying on them.